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Fashion designer Versace shot to death outside Miami Beach mansion

July 16, 1997 GMT

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Gianni Versace, who dressed celebrities the world over in his glamorous, sexy designs, was gunned down outside his oceanfront villa Tuesday and police named one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives as their leading suspect.

Versace, 50, was shot twice in the back of the head at point-blank range.

More than 12 hours later, Miami Beach police chief Richard Barreto identified the suspect as Andrew Phillip Cunanan, 27, who was already being sought in the slayings of four men from Minneapolis to New Jersey. Cunanan was known to move in gay circles; Versace was gay.


Investigators said they didn’t know of any previous link between Cunanan and the designer.

``It’s not clear that he knows all his victims,″ FBI special agent in charge Paul Philip said. ``Everybody’s at risk. Everybody’s got to help us put this guy in jail.″

Versace (pronounced ver-SAH-chay) was returning home from the News Cafe on South Beach’s Ocean Drive after buying an Italian newspaper when he was slain outside the gates of his Mediterranean-style mansion. There was no sign of robbery.

``I do know it is not a random act of violence,″ Barreto said. ``I believe that he was targeted.″

Authorities considered Cunanan armed and dangerous and contacted gay and lesbian organizations in South Florida to see if anyone recognized him. Police said he was a male prostitute who frequented gay bars, and the FBI distributed 2,000 fliers with the suspect’s picture and information about the previous killings.

``Right now we’re reaching out to you folks, to everyone in the community,″ Philip said at an evening news conference.

Police said Versace was shot by white man in his mid-20s, dressed in a white or gray shirt and dark shorts and carrying a backpack. The man fled on foot.

Officers later cordoned off a five-story municipal parking garage near the scene after a witness saw a man fitting the description of the suspect.

Police found clothing under a red Chevrolet pickup truck in the parking garage that was traced to Cunanan, and said the truck matched that of the vehicle Cunanan was last reported driving.

Police Chief Richard Barreto would not confirm the type of handgun used to kill Versace and said they did not have the weapon. WTVJ-TV in Miami quoted unnamed police sources as saying Versace was shot with a .40 caliber handgun, the same caliber weapon used in the murders Cunanan is suspected of committing.


Police said Cunanan stole a red pickup truck after his last known slaying, that of a cemetery caretaker in New Jersey. Cunanan is charged in the May slaying of a Minneapolis architect who had once been his lover, and is the prime suspect in the killings of another former boyfriend in the Minneapolis area and a Chicago businessman.

Along with Giorgio Armani, Versace was considered Italy’s leading ready-to-wear designer and a symbol of Italian fashion.

``Gianni Versace together with a handful of names symbolizes the success of Italian fashion all over the world,″ Armani said. ``My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death and one of profound grief.″

Hours after the slaying, a puddle of blood remained on the steps of Versace’s three-story home. Hundreds of people gathered across the street, popularly known as ``Deco Drive.″

Martin Weinstein said he heard gunshots and ran down the street. ``And when I arrived I saw a guy lying on the step in a pool of blood,″ he said. ``At first I didn’t realize who it was. But then I realized it was Versace.″

Versace’s mansion is the only private home on the fashionable stretch of Ocean Drive. The estate, created from two aging Art Deco hotels, faces the Atlantic Ocean. It is surrounded by a high wall, and his Renaissance-style crest adorns the ornate entrances to the estate.

Versace entertained stars such as Madonna and Robert DeNiro and liked to take leisurely walks along South Beach, often alone.

Maria Contessa, owner of Zoo XIV, a small clothing boutique near Versace’s home, said the designer frequented the store to ``buy clothes for himself, for his friends and particularly for his boyfriend.″

A native of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, Versace began designing ready-to-wear for other firms in 1972 in Milan. He launched the Gianni Versace label in 1978.

Versace gained fame in the 1980s, staging his fashion shows with blaring rock music, glaring floodlights and mega screens reproducing what was going on on the runway.

His first big hit was the use of clingy, chain-mail material. In the next decade, he was largely responsible for the rebirth in Italy of the miniskirt _ making it so short that some called it the ``Band-Aid.″ He was a major force in creating the black-leather look and the glittery sequined jackets so loved by pop singers.

Celebrities who have worn Versace designs include Courtney Love, Elton John, Demi Moore, Rod Stewart, Jane Fonda, Prince, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Jane Seymour, Oksana Baiul and Princess Diana, according to his company.

Besides women’s and men’s wear, his lines now include children’s clothing, lingerie, beachwear, accessories and perfume. The Versace name also adorns fabrics, linens and chinaware, and he planned to take his empire public next year.

At Versace headquarters in Italy, a neo-classical palazzo in downtown Milan, the heart of Milan’s fashion industry, the front doors were closed. A woman left the building weeping and was taken away in a car.

Versace’s brother and business manager, Santo, is appealing a May conviction for bribing tax inspectors in a case that implicated several of Italy’s prominent fashion designers. Gianni Versace was not charged. A sister, Donatella, was also in the business.